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Can Writing Be Taught?

By Jenny Purdue

The San Miguel International PEN lecture series kicks off with Eva Hunter’s lecture “Becoming a Writer—From Eighth Grade English Class to Artistry With Words.”

Eva Hunter knew she was a writer before she could read. “That day in first grade when I knew we were going to learn the first word was probably the most exciting educational experience I’ve had,” she says. She remembers her excitement as the teacher raised the chalk to the blackboard. The first word: “the.”

 Becoming a Writer, PEN’s Winter Lecture Serie, By Eva Hunter, Tue, Jan 17, 6pm, Teatro Ángela Peralta

 But Hunter says this doesn’t mean that one must have an inherent ability to write to become a successful writer. “I wanted to write, so from an early age I started paying attention to everything I liked. I copied Samuel Clemens; I copied Rachael Carson; I copied Thomas B. Costain.”

“At the time I went to college, there were no M.F.A. programs in writing,” she says. “Those of us who wanted to write majored in English literature.” Yet, Hunter says, the people who have come into her writing workshops and had the hardest time learning literary writing have been the English majors. “They’ve got all the grammar and punctuation down—sometimes—and they know the names for verb conjugation tenses. But majoring in ‘English’ doesn’t make a good writer. It might make a good English teacher.”

Hunter has written professionally since the early-1980s—for journals, magazines, literary magazines, books, and newspapers— fiction and nonfiction, although her specialty is literary nonfiction. Her lecture launches the San Miguel PEN’s Winter Lecture Series.

Most people know that Cormac McCarthy and Michael Ondaatje write well, she says. People know that Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a masterpiece. But they don’t know why good writing is good. Although innate ability helps, Hunter says, it really comes down to learning the principles of craft—as in any other art or specialty. Yet writing is something people think they don’t have to learn. The statement that drives Hunter most crazy is, “Oh, yeah—I’ve got a novel I’m going to write some day.” It’s like walking up to a brain surgeon and saying, “Oh, I’m going to operate on my sister’s brain some day.”

“People sometimes get frustrated when they take a writing workshop and they aren’t immediately getting accepted by The New Yorker,” Hunter says. “It’s like thinking one can take three weeks of piano lessons, then get invited to play in Carnegie Hall.”

The lecture will include specific examples of writing by modern masters such as Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Janet Finch, and Michael Ondaatje. Hunter will then talk about the principles of art and craft that each writer used to create a specific effect on his or her audience. “When you are moved by good writing,” she says, “it’s not an accident.”

San Miguel PEN, one of 144 PEN centers in 104 countries, was established in 1979. It works to help writers everywhere, especially those who are jailed, threatened, called to court etc. for what they have written. Contribution of 100 pesos to winter lecture series events makes this work possible all year long.

Jenny Purdue is an intern for Sol: English Writing in Mexico

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